Teach Shape Names to Toddlers & Preschoolers Through Movement & Dance

Teaching children to name, organize and categorize shapes is one of the first formal educational skills we as parents and educators tend to teach our children.

To teach toddlers and preschoolers to identify shapes and name them, they need to be exposed to shapes in as many different ways as possible. Looking at shapes visually, handling them physically, talking about them and moving their bodies to create them.

As I am writing this post my 2-year-old toddler who has done many of the movement lessons I write about in this post is sitting on my lap, snuggling down, and getting ready for his nap, when he gets distracted by an image on my screen. “Shape,” he says…. “i-angle….wocket…..shape”.

To say that I was kind of blown away was an understatement, I mean I knew logically having trained as a teacher and having taught in classrooms that my ideas and techniques to expose concepts through movement would encourage learning, but here I was seeing it first hand. At 2.5yrs my little boy could identify that the images on my screen where shapes and that one of them was a triangle – but I had never taught him this directly. He had learned this information dancing and moving like a rocket with me as we rewatched my creative dance lessons that focus on building shape awareness in kids. He learned this information having fun – no flashcards, no trying to make him sit still and listen, not tantrums…. just fun!

The following lessons are the exact ones I am talking about. They are a series of lessons I created to help develop mathematical thinking and 2D shape awareness in toddlers and kids through creative movement.

The lessons are aimed at teaching children the names of various 2D shapes, describing some of the attributes of these shapes, and encourages thinking about where we see them around us in our environment and using these examples as inspiration to create movement. And now I also have living proof that they will indeed teach your child to learn to identify and name 2d shapes and I hope you have as much success and fun with them as I do with my kids!

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At what age should a child know shapes?

By three years old children should be able to recognize and identify simple 2D shapes such as a circle, square, and triangle. Some may also be able to differentiate between squares and rectangles or circles and ovals and be able to identify diamonds and stars.

But this does not mean all children at this age are able to convey to you they are aware of this knowledge in the same way. Toddlers and preschoolers with good verbal and cognitive skills may be able to point to and tell you the names of the shapes, another child may show you they understand they are different by being able to group similar shapes together, another may easily finish a shape puzzle and another might be able to show you by drawing the shapes. At this age especially as verbal development can vary between children it is important to see what other skills and ways they are able to show you their knowledge and learning – such as when my two year old puts his hands above his head to show me the shape of a triangle and rocket.

Why is it important for toddlers to learn shapes?

It is important for toddlers to learn shapes because being able to identify, organize, and categorize shapes is one of the underlying skills of being able to read. Each letter you are reading right at this moment is made up of different shapes and lines that your brain has learned to recognize, sort, and give meaning to. Being able to recognize that a circle is different from a square and describe that it is because a circle is round whereas a square has corners and straight lines are important in developing the skills to be able to identify letters and other visual patterns.

For many parents, it is important that their toddlers learn shapes as it is one of the most common questions and tests completed by schools at enrolment interviews. I was never an enrolment officer for a school, but I am a parent and have already attended more than five of these types of interview assessments as I have three children in school and we have moved schools several times. As a teacher myself sitting there I am like please know the answers, please know the answers because I have never actually directly taught my children this basic knowledge, but I know that I always indirectly teach it whenever there is an opportunity in real life or a book we are reading – needless to say they knew all of the basic ones. But for those parents perhaps trying to get their child into an elite school or wanting to ensure their child knows the names when in that interview, it is important to them that their child is able to identify and name shapes.

What shapes should I teach first?

Circles, squares and triangles are the three basic shapes that are often taught first. They have minimal sides to count, have specific attributes such as corners and sides to identify and can easily be found in our environments. The key though is to try and develop an understanding in your child that not all triangles for instance look the same and to begin developing the knowledge of the difference between square shapes and rectangles or circles and ovals. There is also the issue that in our environment most shapes are actually 3d and a ball is not a circle but a sphere.

The way I usually overcome this is to praise my child’s efforts and for example say ‘Yes the ball has a circle shape – it is called a sphere or I agree the window does look like a square. This one has two long sides and two short sides so we call it a rectangle.”

How do I teach my toddler shapes?

The best way to teach a toddler their shapes is to naturally expose them to the language we use about shapes. This means that when the opportunity comes whether it is when reading a book, playing with blocks or toys that you as the grownup use your words to describe what you are seeing.

‘You have picked up the triangle shape, I can feel it’s corners with my fingers. Can you feel those sharp corners? I wonder if we have any more triangles…. can you find any?’

Other ways to teach a toddler or preschooler their shapes is to do activities that are created to focus teaching shape awareness such as the many I have listed below.

Fun 2D Shape Activities

Having been a teacher, I am always looking at ways to creatively teach children and regularly used dance and movement in my classrooms to support understanding of concepts and material we were learning about in different areas of the school curriculum.

The following activities focused on teaching about 2D shapes do range in ability and level, but generally, I have started with the easiest activities then worked up in skill level.

Mathematics and Arithmetic

  • Cut out shapes and sort them.
  • A shape scavenger hunt around the house or classroom. Categorize each object and put them into groups or draw what you find if it is too big such as a window or table.
  • Do shape puzzles where you have to put the shapes into the right holes or places.
  • Use shape blocks to build.
  • Practice counting skills but counting the sides of different shapes.
  • Cut out shapes and then manipulate shapes in different ways – flip, slide, turn, etc… and discuss how their appearance changes, but attributes stay the same – for example is a heart still a heart when turned upside down?
  • Use tangrams to solve picture problems.
  • Categorize shapes that are symmetrical and asymmetrical. Explore whether for example all triangles are symmetrical?
  • Explore the meaning of polygon and quadrilateral.
  • Explore the difference between two dimensional and three-dimensional shapes

English and Literacy

  • Shape spelling lists.
  • Create a list of adjectives to help you describe shapes and write sentences that use them.
  • Read books that identify shapes and their attributes.
  • Where did the words we use to describe shapes originate from?
  • Explore the pattern and history of naming shapes – pentagon, hexagon, octagon, etc…

Social Studies

  • How are shapes used in society to help symbolize and assist us to quickly identify meaning – for example a Red Octagon indicates a stop sign. Three circles, red, amber and green represent a traffic light etc..
  • Study flags and the 2D shapes used in them to create their symbolic meaning. Create your own flag using 2D shapes.
  • How have shapes and patterns influenced design or architecture in our society? What shapes would you more likely see in western countries compared to Asia or the Middle East?

Science & Technology

  • Why are buildings and bricks mostly rectangular or square in shape?
  • How are arches and circular shapes in buildings created? How do they stay strong and stay up to hold the weight, for example, the arch of a bridge, an arch in a ceiling, a curved wall etc?
  • Code a game or even a PowerPoint presentation that can teach others about shapes.
  • Draw shapes using animation or design software.

Physical Education

  • Use shapes to designate activities in an exercise rotation for example – when you get to the rectangle on the floor do 10 lunges, when you get to the star, do 10 jumping jacks etc..
  • Create static shapes with our bodies or if in groups, create shapes using our bodies in a group – three children could make a triangle with each one lying on the floor as one side each for example.

Creative Arts

  • Cut out shapes and use them to make a mosaic style picture.
  • Create a picture using only shapes – or even only one shape.
  • Identify how shape is used by artists in their work.
  • Explore the importance of shape in art.

Samantha Bellerose

Samantha trained and worked professionally as a dancer and has a Diploma in Dance as well as a Bachelor's Degree in Education. She currently runs Dance Parent 101 as well as Move Dance Learn whilst caring for her four children and enjoying life with her Husband.

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